No. 48: August 2010
Beggar to Benefactor:
arts funding on its head
Blanche d'Alpuget looked
across the theatre aisle in disbelief. At the end of the performance,
the director, Don Mamouney, announced the disbanding of Canberra's
short lived Fortune Theatre Company. Earlier
that day the Arts Development Board sub committee informed the
Fortune Theatre Company of its intention to recommend no funding for
the company in 1988. As this intention had not even been discussed by
the complete Arts Development Board, Blanche, as a member of a
different sub committee, had no idea about such a recommendation.
Fortune's announcement actually precipitated the final decision.
In some arts circles, the
funding body was being blamed for the failure of The Fortune Theatre
Company. But with effectively two years of operational funding and
barely more than a six months program of activity, Fortune was in
financial difficulties which made it impossible to maintain its
initial commitments and obligations. While the Arts Development Board
sub committee was recommending a withdrawal of support for the 1988
program of activity, Fortune was unable to continue its funded
commitment to the second half of its 1987 program.
Funding bodies can become
convenient excuses for failure when individuals and organizations
have not adequately taken responsibility for their own producership.
In a sense this is a shifting of the burden of responsibility
strategy which perpetuates a more problematic situation involving the
relationship between the arts and the state.
Arts as Welfare
body proclamations about "cultural leadership" being
in the hands of a State appointed instrumentality compound this
shifting the burden of responsibility. Artists and arts organizations
are seen as "clients" in much the same way as welfare
recipients are viewed as clients: a problem for a benevolent state.
The result can be arts attuned to the dictates and criteria of its
financial master, the state. Or, artists adopting a "victim"
persona when dumped by the State or not adequately supported by the
State. This in turn, reinforces this "welfare" basis of
Artists as victims and the
welfare basis of funding perpetuate the current relationship between
the State's funding authorities. Yet, both critics and advocates of
the State system of arts funding still ascribe to it a
"leadership" role in arts practices. In the typical logic
of a vulgar Marxist ideology, there is an assumption that by gaining
control of the state instrumentatility for funding the arts, some
kind of arts ideal will be implemented; cultural policies
articulated; with best arts practices resulting. But this thinking is
The key component of this
argument is that "peer assessment" ensures arms length
funding decisions which result in fair and reasonable allocations
within difficult circumstances. "Peer assessment" is
supposed to prevent political nepotism and provide a sounding board
and representation for artists and groups applying for funds. It
But the problem is
clear. What we are talking about is essentially "peer
assessment" for the State agenda and not for the arts. Peer
assessment is used, not so much to ensure best arts practices, but as
an insurance for purposes of accountability. Semantic justification
for arts funding in terms of articulated cultural concern is more
significant than actual achievement in the arts. But to provide this
justification, it is crucial to achieve the necessary intellectual
framework or architecture within which various competing arts
activities and programs can be measured and prioritised. Artists and
arts advocates are then co-opted into the process whereby this
measurement takes place.
Now this all sounds very
democratic. But there is a very definite flaw in this peer assessment
and input strategy. Co-opted artists and cultural advocates become
components of a state apparatus coming to exhibit loyalty to a new
group. To function effectively, such groups maintain a level of
confidentiality and bonding so as to protect the integrity of the
group. Being effective in such group structures is no easy task. The
skills necessary for achievement within the cohesive structures of
group dynamics are of a very highly developed nature. Those more
likely to exhibit such skills are lobbyists and social or issue
activists, public relations people, psychologists, lawyers, those in
management positions etc.
The reforming individual or
idealist is heard to be complaining of an inability to achieve
things. We hear:
"Why does it have to be
so bureaucratic?" or "I'm not happy with some of the
decisions but I can't see any alternative," or "I feel
powerless to do much. But I feel it's better to be in there trying
and putting forward an alternative view."
Members, whether artists or
bureaucrats, become peers in a different sense to how it is normally
understood. When co-opted to a funding body, one's peers now become
other members of this group. So when we are speaking about "peer
assessment" we are speaking about a deceptive process. "Peer
assessment" now applies to that assessment which takes place
within the context, new demands, objectives and dynamics of
this new group: That group being the instrument of the State's
As a member of the State's
funding apparatus, one is NOT a peer of the arts. In effect, one
becomes split with different loyalties. So to speak of "peer
assessment" as a cornerstone of State funding procedures is a
gross deception. It is probably less effective than the "council
of wise elders" method of assessment or some other means of
ferreting out worthy activity through a cultivated sense of arts smell.
Most participants in state
based peer assessment procedures are likely to assume responsibility
for effective decision making within the arts and culture. In
reality, such decision making only need be responsive to the demands
and criteria of the State's apparatus. Provided care is taken within
this framework, the assessor's integrity is covered and one's
responsibilities are discharged. The careful construction of minutes
of all the group's deliberations and the matching of proposals to the
constructed criteria are the two essential safeguards on one's
accountability. With threats of law suits and unpleasant media
coverage or ministerial inquiry abounding, such procedures become
In this context, applicants
for financial support from the State's funding apparatus are
certainly not viewed as peers. They are viewed as clients; sometimes
assuming the role as a problem.
An alternative plausible
basis for public funding of the arts lies in reversing the client
relationship with the state. Instead of the artists and arts
organizations being the client of the state, the reverse should apply
ensuring a professional relationship and removing the benevolent
welfarism which currently pervades all levels of arts funding. The
State then becomes a client of the arts. However, to achieve this,
two parallel developments need to occur:
1. From within the arts, greater emphasis needs to
be placed on the
discipline of "PRODUCERSHIP", as distinct from artistic
2. The welfare basis for funding needs to be
revised, where possible,
in favour of INFRASTRUCTURE SUPPORT.
While such a strategy does
not preclude direct Government initiated arts in welfare programs it
structurally removes key areas of decision making and assessment of
artistic plausibility from the State instrumentality. Peer assessment
within this model is directly linked to PRODUCERSHIP: linking
decision making with responsibility for achievement.
Strengthening of peer
assessment within the arts for artistic and cultural achievement and
development is an alternative use of public funds. By utilizing peer
assessment where it is most effective, (ie. in the actual areas of
practice and implementation) we strengthen the link between decision
making and responsibility.
To see how this might work
in practice, let us consider the area of publishing. Writers submit
works to a publisher for consideration. The publisher has some means
for assessing the suitability of the work for publication. The
publisher might also initiate projects for its own publication. The
publisher has a stake in the success of the author. Editors will work
on manuscripts and offer advice and assistance. To be a successful
publisher, artistic and market considerations are paramount. So
favourable assessment of a work's potential is backed up with the
responsibility to present and sell it to the public.
The State would better
utilize the "peer assessment" principle by channelling
funds to the publisher for fees, research and development and
speculative funds for distribution to writers of merit. Rather than a
state appointed instrumentality attempting to offer "peer
assessment" of a writer's potential, as measured against a list
of the state's criteria, assessment is better left in the hands of
the key machinery of the art form.
Now it is not always so
clear as to just what constitutes producership or a producer. And
this is where the arts need to spend time on definition. David O.
Selznick, the famed producer of "Gone With The Wind" said
in 1957: "My conception of the producer's role is that it is
similar to being the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor
oversees every detail and interprets as he sees fit. I am a
perfectionist. My sights are set high. But I've found that most
people have to be forced into raising their sights."
The most significant point
of the Producer's role is that of responsibility from beginning to
end. It involves seeing the product or service in multifarious terms
and being aware of influential factors from both within the realm of
the work and from external forces. Some might also point to the
producer's educative and advocacy roles. It is then, the producer or
those responsible to the producer of any work of art who is/are best
placed to assess likely quality of any project. Recent developments
suggest a movement in this direction (eg. a move to triennial
funding) though essentially, companies are still recipients of grants
rather than contractors receiving payment for producership.
While ideologists from both
the left and the right will lament a degree of loss in state control
over the arts, can it really be argued that state appointed
committees are in a better position to judge the potential of an arts
product or service than a dedicated and professional producer with a
vested interest in its success? The responsibility of the state
appointed committee to the project is virtually completed once a
funding recommendation is made. Provided correct procedures have been
followed, that's it! Responsibility is finished. It's a case of
political power without responsibility to the arts.
Over a period of decades,
thousands of hit and miss funding decisions have been made by these
state appointed committees, while boasting some of the best artists
as members. While no doubt there have been many successes, the net
result has been to restrict the relationship between funded artist
and the state to one of benevolent subservience.
Assessment and Infra-Structure
To better utilize the peer
assessment process from within the art forms, what is needed is a
greater degree of INFRA-STRUCTURE funding rather than direct arts
funding. A strong infra-structure has its own built in peer
assessment procedures based on professional and art form needs. In
by-passing this through direct "project" funding,
government instrumentalities undermine and subvert the very things
they claim to support.
For instance, a mediocre
writer with a strong flair for sociological semantics may prepare a
funding application which appeals to the categories and terms of
reference for the funding body. Should a grant be made to this
writer, by-passing the need for the writer to gain a satisfactory
assessment from a publisher, the processes and quality control from
within the art form are undermined.
I would suggest it is easier
to lobby a funding sub committee for some financial remuneration than
it is to influence a publisher or producer to accept one's work.
Ideally, the State would
serve cultural and artistic needs best by avoiding any direct arts
funding at all. This would circumvent the difficult area of deciding
what is art or culture worthy of support. By directing funding into INFRA-STRUCTURAL
DEVELOPMENT and needs, the quality of arts products and services are
determined by dynamics from within the producership process itself.
This would need the state to clearly define its areas of intervention
and support within the arts (remembering that only a relatively small
section of arts activity is actually supported by the state). Once
having done this, tenders could be called from prospective PRODUCERS
for programs of arts development.
Whatever the actual
procedures for such a change in the relationship between the State's
funding apparatus and the arts, there is much to be gained by firstly
accepting the principle of a change from the Welfare base to one of
professional engagement: and so reversing the client relationship.
dynamics within art forms
To achieve this new
relationship would require internal change within the arts as to how
artistic activity, products and services were organized and
structured. Old models of organization, including the very concept
and nature of a theatre company, might need to be re-evaluated. More
flexible producership ranging across media and utilizing the
technology of greater communication and flexibility might well enable
a greater focus on artistic creation and less on maintaining power
structures within rival units.
While such consideration is
beyond the scope of this debate, it should be recognized that unless
power and responsibility for the future of arts practices are taken
into the hands of the arts themselves, such power will continue to be
usurped by interested others with semantic dexterity and vested
interests in controlling the state's mechanism of financial
distribution. At a basic organizational level, there needs to be a
revising of amateur control, through the "community
associations", structure of arts organization. The inherent
caution, conservatism and the sublimating of artistic concerns
to other community or cultural concerns that accompany such
organization are guarantied to keep the publicly funded arts in a
subservient and welfare relationship to the state.
To blame the State for
failure of an arts program is only buying into the subservience of
the arts to State instrumentalities: reinforcing the
"victim" perception and arts funding as welfare.
What is required is a
professional concentration on new "PRODUCERSHIP" and
re-organization within the arts. Strength lies in the power to
negotiate with the state and to control the resources to bring arts
products and services to fruition.
Joe Woodward The bulk of
this article was written in 1994 and published in Theatre Australia.
Unfortunately, much of it is still relevant. Joe Woodward was Chair
of the Performing Arts Committe of the Arts Development Board (ACT),
the state funding body for the arts in 1988/89.